Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Lost Tomb and the St. Olaf Professor

The ridiculous coverage of the James Cameron's The Lost Tomb of Jesus documentary continues unabated. While some major news organizations (notably the Washington Post and Time) have expressed skepticism about the documentary's "findings", others in the mainstream media have clearly taken the bait. It appears that even the flimsiest of evidence gets a pass from reporters when the target is Christian doctrine.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, to their credit, turned to a local scholar to evaluate the case made by the Lost Tomb documentary. Unfortunately, they managed to find one of the few scholars who is even remotely supportive of Cameron's little foray into archaeological science. James Hanson, a professor of New Testament studies at St. Olaf College (a small Lutheran school in Northfield, MN), is genuninely intrigued by the Discovery Channel program, saying that it's worth a "cautious look." "You have to be a little skeptical", says Hanson, "But it's hard to completely ignore what these guys are saying." Indeed, even though most of his academic colleagues have derided the Lost Tomb as a crass publicity stunt with little merit, Hanson seems impressed by the quality of scholarship:
"I watched the news conference, and I was impressed by the caution with which their experts, some of whom are serious scholars I'm familiar with, spoke. These guys are making the most out of some intriguing scraps of evidence. But they have some strikings things here, and it's worth a look."
Strangely enough, Hanson offers this positive assessment despite the fact that he disputes many of the Lost Tomb claims: he calls the Mary Magdalene connection "a stretch", points out that previous tombs in the ossuary were found to be fraudulent, and has a hard time imagining "the circumstances in which Jesus' family would have had this kind of tomb." He's also disappointed that the results were not peer reviewed. Regardless, he says that "I don't see how we can ignore it... It's going to be fascinating one way or another."

What are we supposed to make of Hanson's contradictory comments? Clearly he's skeptical of most of the documentary's major claims, and he's unnerved by James Cameron's end-run around the scientific establishment, but he has only nice things to say about the people involved. Why didn't he give the Lost Tomb the smack-down it deserves? My theory, based on my interactions with several St. Olaf graduates, is that Hanson is simply too nice to say anything mean. Like most people affiliated with St. Olaf, he has an almost neurotic fear of offending others. Thus, he's willing to say "gee whiz, it sure will be interesting" about this shoddy piece of research, even though it threatens the integrity of his profession and his faith. A classic case of "Minnesota nice" (not to be confused with the equally common "Wisconsin drunk").

Which raises the question: does Hanson see the Lost Tomb as a threat his faith? No, he answers, but not because its findings are almost surely bogus. Instead, he isn't threatened because faith "is not based on the vicissitudes of historical discovery. If your faith rests on a literal interpretation of the Bible's description of what resurrection involves, a finding that counters that could be troublesome." Hanson fails to elaborate on what he thinks Jesus's resurrection and ascension "involved", but apparently it's consistent with him being buried in a tomb outside Jerusalem. He goes on to argue:
"What it comes down to is whether claims made by religious traditions are the same as historical claims. I'm all for learning as much as we can about the times. But faith is never going to hold up to pure historical analysis. That's not what it's about."
While there is certainly some truth to what Hanson is saying, I think it's wrong to assume that the claims made by the Jesus Tomb documentary, if true, would only be problematic for fundamentalists. Christianity, after all, is a religion rooted in the historical figure of Christ, who was not a mere phantom but flesh and bones. His resurrection and ascension are therefore not simply metaphors of spiritual truths, but events that took place in the world for its salvation. Hanson is right that historical research will never provide an adequate basis for faith, but he's misguided if he thinks that the historical claims of Christianity are only for literalists.


Chris Rosebrough said...

For a comprehensive and scholarly rebuttal of the film’s evidence please visit

Read and hear the evidence fore yourself.

Gerald said...

Well written Thomas.

David said...

You're right...ridiculous coverage.

Andy said...

The thing is, what is the basis for your faith in the resurrection? I'm not entirely certain what the basis for my faith is, but I think maybe it's just that the resurrection seems congruent with my understanding of God and the nature of the universe.

Certainly the fact that it is a actual historical event is critical, but it's a historical event that I only understand from a distance. If the bones of Jesus were found, it wouldn't really crush my faith because my faith is based on something other than a lack of bones. I would certainly have to rethink a lot of the details, but I can't imagine I wouldn't still be Christian.

That said, it doesn't look like this is much cause for questioning my previous assumptions.

CPA said...

"Minnesota nice" -- first heard that phrase a few years ago and somehow, though I've never been to Minnesota, I know exactly what it means.

"Wisconsin drunk" on the hand . . .

Rabbi Jonah said...

For me the main value of the Lost Tomb of Jesus movie is the incentive to study the names involved in both the tomb and the records of Jesus' family. There are many interesting questions to investigate in regard to these names. For example, it is all fine and good to hear the mainstreamers say over and over again that these were the most common names of the time period. Fine. What I find interesting, is if we accept that assertion at face value, it would tend to suggest that these names were equally common in both Judea and the Galilee. That could raise other interesting issues in response to those authors who have treated the differences and similarities between the two regions at the time...among Jews...especially keeping in mind that the set of names does seem to suggest a strong Maccabean influence. I don't have any pet theories in any direction here...yet. I'm just seeing things to look into more deeply...which is what the movie's ultimate value is.

Now. Let us address the elephant in the room. And that is, Cameron aside. The filmaker is a JEW. And Christians don't like it when Jews go poking at Christian claims. Of course, it's fine and dandy that each and every Sunday, Christianity is sold from the pulpit as that which can save whereas the LAW of Judaism could never.

After the Premier of the movie, Ted Koppel hosted a panel discussion. Out of the gate, two Christian "academics" engaged in name-calling. The good professor from the University of La Verne accused the Jew of making "archaeo-porn" and the woman theologion accused the Jew of "deception". My, my. Isn't that ancient? Accusing Jews of the age-old sexually-base-grimy bestial essence so aptly captured in Nazi cartoons and displayed throughout the Arab press today...and oh, yes, the "Deception"...the devious underhanded cabal at it again a la Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

I had expected the "academics" to basically poo-pooh the movie with some humor and and a brush off. But these people were really very very angry.

The moral of the story is: That it is still more than a sin to be a Jew...who by virtue of being a Jew has a pet alternative theory about what really was the story with Jesus. Jews have not been believing in the resurrection and having alternative theories for two thousand years now. Apparently, the unwritten, but very defacto rule is: We are allowed, perhaps, to be not associated with Satan, if we just keep our mouths shut.